Back in May, ALIA (that’s the Australian Libraries and Information Association for those readers who don’t have a defunct Grad Dip in Library and Information Studies) released the top 10 YA titles borrowed from Australian public libraries.
Only two out of the ten were Australian. John Green had more entries in this list than Australian YA authors.
Out of this problem grew the #loveOzYA hashtag, a grassroots reader movement that was quickly embraced by booksellers and publishers. Danielle Binks writes more about that for Kill Your Darlings.
I read Australian YA, and I also write it (or try to), so this is an issue very dear to my heart. I want to be a published author one day, and I want to reach a wide audience — who doesn’t? — but I also want to tell Australian stories. And I don’t want to choose.
(Yesterday I sat down and made a list of all the ideas I have for middle grade and YA novels, and where they’re at, and roughly how I’d prioritise them. I have ten ideas that I think are worth pursuing. Nine are specifically set in Australia. I clearly have a vested interest in promoting Australian fiction for young readers.)
On Tuesday night, I went to a #loveOzYA event at Readings Hawthorn, a panel discussion titled Where’s OzYA going right, and where’s it going wrong? The panel was moderated by Isobel Moore, the specialist YA bookseller from Readings St Kilda. On the panel were Melissa Keil, winner of the inaugural Ampersand Prize and author of contemporary Melbourne-based YA; Marisa Pintado, commissioning editor of YA for Hardie Grant Egmont and coordinator of the Ampersand Prize; the abovementioned Danielle Binks; and Susan la Marca, a senior teacher-librarian.
This was the perfect event — Readings Hawthorn was warm, dry, spacious and had toilets, not to mention that it was full of books, and the panel only ran for three-quarters of an hour, which is handy when it’s a Tuesday night and it takes me an hour to get home.
For once, I didn’t livetweet the event, but instead chose to take notes on my phone. (Okay, I’ll be honest: I’m nearly out of data.) Important lesson for Future Lizzes: just take a notebook. It’s low-tech, but at least doesn’t have autocorrect.
Questions had been submitted in advance by Actual Teenagers, who are often silenced by grown up discussions of YA fiction. The first was, is YA a genre or an audience category?
Danielle took this one. “It’s a readership that contains many genres,” she said, and metaphorically dropped the mike. Nice black and white answer that didn’t draw any dissent.
The next question was more complex: how does Australian YA compare to the rest of the world?
Susan said that it compares very well — there’s a lot of variety, and fantastic material. However, we face issues in terms of being a small market with less resources for marketing than other, larger (American) markets.
Marisa said that it’s hard to generalise about a country’s work as a whole, but Australian YA tends more towards standalone, literary works that attract awards. Awards are a big deal in Australia, because with our limited resources (this is going to be a recurring theme), they’re the best way to get mainstream media attention and build sales — and also provide a bit of extra money for authors, which is another thing we don’t have much of.
And what makes a book Australian? Is it just the setting, or is it the author’s country of origin? Is it something more than that?
Melissa talked about the thrill of recognition — I think it was she who used the example of young readers getting excited when a novel talks about year 12 instead of “senior year”. (This isn’t just limited to young readers — I feel the same way myself!)
Marisa built on this by talking about readers finding it easier to identify with local stories and characters.
Danielle said that the US industry is very much based on trends and bandwagons — there will be one big, successful book or series, and then a whole lot of imitations. Australia is too small to sustain that sort of thing, so our industry prioritises good story over trends.
On the other hand, I think it was Danielle who mentioned a friend who sought out local YA while travelling overseas, and who found that Australia is perceived as one of the major sources of English young adult literature, along with the US and the UK.
The teen perception — and I forgot to write down who said this — is that Australian YA is overall better than the works produced by the international market, but is overshadowed by US blockbusters. That goes for any media, but here’s a statistic: for every Australian title in the YA market, there are nine international titles.
I think it was Marisa who commented that Australian authors should be open to a variety of styles and ideas, both literary and commercial. She doesn’t want cynical commercialism, but commercial fiction absolutely has a place. (In the front row, I perked up and thought, “Oooooh, my ideas are totally commercial! Call me!”)
Danielle thinks Australia needs more spaces for teens to get excited about books, without adults acting as gatekeepers or talking over them. She talked about the TeenCon program at the Sydney Writers Festival in May. TeenCon was free and held on a weekend, so teenagers were able to attend, and it was highly successful.
(The free bit is significant, as far as I’m concerned. Continuum had a YA Sunday last year, and we had several teens attend. But the nature of Continuum is that we can’t afford to do things for free, which limits our ability to appeal to teens, who are generally on tight budgets.)
Next question: what, in the opinion of the panelists, do teens want more of?
Susan turned that around into, what does the publishing industry need to do? This wound up being a bit of a diversion, centering around the problem that the local industry is so small compared to the US, how much can we reasonably expect to achieve in terms of competition? Especially in terms of exporting Australian YA to the US, which has a very insular culture.
(Curiously, I’ve heard very little about the UK YA market, which is our other big competitor — but UK products don’t swamp the Australian market in the same way as the American books do.)
Getting back to the question of what do young readers want, Susan said that her students — she works at a Catholic girls school — want good stories that take them seriously, that don’t talk down. Genre is almost irrelevant — a good story will find readers.
The conversation turned to diversity, for which teen readers are hungry. Teens from marginalised groups want to see themselves in stories; teens from privileged groups are tired of reading about themselves.
I think it was either Melissa or Marisa who mentioned that a decade ago, Australian YA was much less diverse, and publishers were more hesitant to put a character of colour on a cover. (Although it now occurs to me that this was around the time Does My Head Look Big In This? was published, which has a photo of a grinning girl in a hijab on its cover.)
But in terms of diversity, what readers want are stories where diversity is a feature, but not the hook. Marisa talked about getting pitches for books that feature one character from every demographic, and the outcome being both tokenistic and also a bit dull. The story should be the priority.
Complexity is also something teens want, especially in terms of romance, sexuality and gender identity. Danielle pointed out that teens are far more progressive than the publishing industry in this area.
There was talk about kids being tired of romance, but it’s more that readers are tired of girl-meets-boy stories and the attendant tropes. Susan had her thinking face on — her feeling is that want readers want is well-written romance. Again, readers want complex relationships — and that’s across all genres, not just contemporary teen romance.
How do we encourage diverse stories?
This is where it got meaty!
Melissa, who is a woman of colour herself, wants to encourage diverse writers, and to persuade teens that they have stories worth telling — but state schools don’t have the budget for author visits, certainly not on the same scale as private schools, so she finds herself sharing this message with kids who don’t necessarily need to hear it.
(I got very excited here, because Melissa talked about going to school in Broadmeadows and Frankston, and for some reason, a lot of the Australian YA authors I know tend to be products of private schools. Melissa went to Catholic schools, but they weren’t wealthy or fancy.)
The issue of cost for school visits is interesting to me, because I only recently learned that this is something authors get paid for. Turns out that when David McRobbie did a reading and ran a writing workshop at my primary school, he wasn’t doing it out of the goodness of his own heart.
So my instinctive response when I hear that socio-economically disadvantaged schools can’t afford author visits is, “Well, why don’t authors do it for free?”
And then, of course, I’m like, “Welp, novelists gotta eat.” A school visit means preparation, planning, not to mention a day away from writing, or the author’s day job. And YA is dominated by women, so I’m basically putting all that labour onto … mostly … women…
Yeah, self, no. Not a great idea, and definitely not a solution to the problem. Is this something that can be crowdfunded, in the same way that fan funds send people of colour or from disadvantaged backgrounds to conventions? Maybe? I don’t know enough about that side of the industry to say. But it seems like something to be looked at, and for which we need a solution other than completely changing the way Australia’s education system is funded. Although that should happen, too. But I digress.
Anyway, #weneeddiversebooks, but we also need diverse editors. Danielle talked about the black&write program in Queensland, which offers fellowships and mentoring to young Indigenous writers and editors. I had no idea this existed, but I am so, so excited to learn of it.
The next question was about gatekeeping and YA. Susan looked weary, and (she herself said) got a bit defensive: school librarians walk a fine line. She hates the term “gatekeeper”, but it’s expected that a school library will reflect the aspirations and moral philosophy of the school.
Susan, for her part, buys just about everything out there, but seeks to guide readers away from inappropriate material. Her school has students from years five to twelve, and that’s a very big range — and, of course, what is appropriate for one student might not be for another. She’s sometimes guided by parental wishes, as well.
(I had a flashback to library school, where we studied collection management and looked at the ways even the most liberal of librarians practice censorship at some level. Then I had a further flashback to Lucy the Researcher‘s trolltastic presentation on how library censorship is great, which led our course coordinator to suggest she was too cynical to be a librarian.)
Public librarians, of course, have different considerations and possibly more freedom, but we had none on the panel.
Marisa remarked that booksellers are more often gatekeepers than librarians, and often baulk at material that libraries buy without a qualm. Unfortunately, since the demise of Red Group (RIP, Borders and Angus & Robertson, my old employers), there’s less of a middle ground between department stores — which are very conservative and limited in their range — and specialist bookstores, which are less accessible outside of big cities.
Danielle talked about bloggers and vloggers, and how some of the biggest names in the YA reviewer community are teens — peers rather than authority figures. Marisa confirmed that big name bloggers are amazing for exposure and discoverability. (Don’t worry, No Award is very far from being a big name blog.)
The conversation turned to the Ampersand Prize, to which I am absolutely submitting my middle grade boarding school novel if I can finish revisions before 14 September. Melissa, as I mentioned above, is a past winner, and Marisa runs it, so obviously they strongly encouraged people to enter.
Finally, panelists were asked to list their favourite Australian YA novel. (Some people cheated and listed more than one.) The choices:
Susan: Black Juice by Margo Lanagan, citing the richness and beauty of Lanagan’s language.
Marisa: Tomorrow, When The War Began by John Marsden; Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park; All I Ever Wanted by Vikki Wakefield. (That’s No Award’s least-favourite YA novel, my very favourite novel ever, and one I haven’t read yet!)
Melissa: Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody.
Isobel: Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty.
Finally, there was about a quarter of an hour for audience questions. The first was, what should authors keep in mind when writing YA?
Melissa said the first priority should be telling a good story, without being didactic.
Marisa advised authors not to pigeonhole themselves as plot OR character writers — the two should be linked, and complexity is very underrated.
(I was not aware it was perceived as an either/or proposition! It’s almost as silly and artificial as the readers v writers divide that’s around these days.)
Susan said, “Don’t have a checklist where you’re just ticking off points you think you need to include.” (I paraphrase.)
Danielle said authors should avoid moralising. And don’t feel compelled to tie up every loose end, or force happy endings where they don’t fit. (On the other hand, don’t forget to add hope.)
Someone asked if the panelists keep the adult YA audience in mind when they work.
Marisa said that she doesn’t think about adults at all when she’s buying and editing books. This extends somewhat to sales — teens are far more likely to get books from libraries than to buy them. (And here I worried I was out of touch!)
Melissa writes for herself first, and doesn’t worry too much about the adult readership.
Danielle said that, for her, YA is like Peter Pan, always youthful while its readers become adults. We shouldn’t buy into the idea that reading books aimed at a younger audience is a bad thing. But keep in mind that adult voices easily drown out teens.
Susan said that a good story is a good story, but agreed with Danielle that young people need a space of their own to read and talk about books without interference. Overall, she thinks age divisions are artificial and categories should be fluid. There are picture books that everyone should read, for example.
Someone asked if Australia, with its small market, is large enough to make diversity work. I texted Stephanie to let her know a white guy said something stupid, because I like to keep her updated on these things.
Marisa said no, the industry wants diverse books. But the size of our market makes a lot of things challenging — it’s more important to sell internationally than in the past.
Danielle pointed out that the US, with its enormous market-share and vast resources, has exactly the same problems around diversity. It’s not just about the size of the market, it’s about the need to mentor diverse authors and editors.
And there, we wrapped it up, and I blurbled incoherently at Melissa for a few minutes before sliding off to buy Cry Blue Murder by Kim Kane and Marion Roberts, because I hit the maximum number of titles I could recommend for the Eastern Regional Library Service to buy, and I wanted to read it nooooooooow.
(Which I did. And it was amazing. #loveOzYA)